A Call to Action: My Fellow Americans with Disabilities, Raise Your Voices to Harness Our Consumer Power before It’s Too Late

My fellow Americans with disabilities, I need your help so that I can demonstrate our considerable market power, and present useful input to the businesses that want to sell to us.

I created a business based on three assumptions:

  1. Americans with disabilities represent a significant economic power in this country;
  2. For the first time in history, the American business community is waking up to this power, and trying to create strategies to harness it; and
  3. Americans with disabilities are ready to raise our voices, to partner with American business to provide our consumer perspective. Essentially, we are ready for business to work with us, rather than fumbling efforts to work for us.

The first two can be shown with publicly available data.

The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that Americans with disabilities control $200,000,000,000 in discretionary spend.  To give a sense of the scale that that represents, the 2013 global revenue for Apple was only $171,000,000,000.  Even if we assume that more of that money goes to consumer products then iPads, the number is staggering.

A quick Google search will tell you that corporations are beginning to move in response to this power.  In addition to the well-known stories of Walgreens and IBM, it seems like every business conference has some module on capturing the disability market.  Lots of people, some of them with disabilities, are offering their services as oracles of disability opinion.  Given their impressive client lists, I would imagine people are listening.

I applaud these efforts.  They are absolutely better than nothing.  Though I often raise my voice to lament slavish adherence to building codes without making a space truly functional, or software accessibility features which seem to be designed with no particular purpose in mind, it is exponentially better than nothing at all.  Access has improved, if not quite how we wanted it to.

Similarly, the initiatives above have created products and services better optimized for people with disabilities.  And yet, too often these initiatives seem like a shot in the dark, and even with regard to the big name ones, every person with a disability to whom I have spoken thinks they could have been done better, could have been more effective.

And they could have.  In the years that I spent at Procter & Gamble, I never saw the company design a successful product for an identified consumer demographic without engaging the input of that demographic.  Operating under the watchword, “the consumer is the boss,” listening to the voice of the consumer was the lodestone for effective corporate initiatives.  The company’s biggest successes during my time, like Secret Clinical Strength, were designed to meet an expressed consumer need.  The biggest failures (does anyone remember Scent Stories?) were invariably ascribed to experts who had gotten too far from the consumer voice.

It’s almost a given that disability initiatives would follow the same general success to failure ratio: if there is no disability voice, prepare for an abject failure, and the greater the disability voice, the greater the chance of success.

My business model is predicated on the idea that Americans with disabilities are ready, willing, and able to provide that voice.  I am almost certain that I’m right about this, and I want to share it confidently with potential business partners, but I’m having trouble gathering the proof.

Last week, I started to circulate a simple request for people with disabilities who might be interested in surveys or focus groups to go to my website, and, in probably less than a minute, give me their name, their email address, and simple confirmation that they were in fact people with disabilities.  Through my own social network, this request was tweeted to tens of thousands of people with disabilities and their families.  I received seven names.  Assuming that people are interested, my methodology is failing.

I’m stymied.  It is of course possible that this is a simple matter of time and engagement.  I don’t really entertain the idea that a demographic who has centered its movement around “nothing about us without us” is uninterested in being heard in the consumer arena.  But I could understand if, given the still active fight for Justice, and the incredible effort of independent living in a society where access and employment opportunity still languish at unacceptable rates, Americans with disabilities were reluctant to get involved in one more arena.  God knows, it sometimes feels like the need for education is endless, and could swallow us all.

But, we can’t afford to be silent.  As businesses wake up to our market power, as new federal regulations put our value as employees front and center, we have to wake up with a mighty roar.  If we want a seat at the boardroom tables were so much of the power in our society is wielded, we have to be America’s most engaged consumer demographic.  We have to be the $200,000,000,000 segment telling business exactly what we want.  Trust me, if they know, and if there’s a profit to be made, they will respond.

The alternative is that we become the $200,000,000,000 black box that nobody knows how to effectively monetize, and, after a few more years of trying, businesses will give up.  We can’t afford that.

So, to all my fellow Americans with disabilities, I ask a simple favor.  Please visit www.capitalizability.com/signup, and put your name on my list.  If web forms are a problem, please send an email to consumer_voice@capitalizability.com. Please make sure that the email contains your name, the email address at which you would like to be contacted for such an opportunity, and confirm that you are a person with a disability.  Then indicate whether you would be interested in surveys, focus groups, or both.

That’s it.  In that one step, you empower me to enter a meeting with a business client and say to that client “if you want to know more about what people with disabilities think, I’ve got thousands of names right here of people waiting to tell you.”  This is all I need to begin creating avenues for your voice.

Let’s raise our voices in one more forum as we continue to make history, to seize our place in American society.


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